Q+A: The year deforestation was supposed to be chopped in half

Small steps forward, but much left to do for forests under threat, says Robert Nasi
An axe is shown in a embedded in large tree trunk in a forest
An axe is shown in a tree being cut down to produce charcoal in Yangambi, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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As communities around the world hail glimpses of resurgent urban wildlife and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions related to the COVID-19 shutdown, other environmental news is somewhat disappointing, says Robert Nasi, the director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

For example, he points out, this week the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association reported a sharp increase in global carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, while the pandemic shows no immediate signs of altering rates of deforestation in a positive direction.

Nasi, one of the world’s top forestry experts, delivered the remarks after key preliminary findings of the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 (FRA) were launched by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) revealing that the world is still losing 10 million ha of forests annually.

Forests News interviewed Nasi, who dug into the data from the report, which is released every five years by FAO.

Nasi shaped his responses in the context of various internationally agreed development and environmental policy frameworks, referring to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (ABT) established under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the New York Declaration on Forests, (NYDF) which was agreed at U.N. climate talks in 2014.

Q: Could you help put the numbers into perspective? What does this mean for forests?

A: “Despite targets – including the NYDF and ABT 5 — aimed at halving deforestation by 2020 — the planet’s intact, primary forests are still shrinking albeit at a slower pace.

According to the FAO assessment, which I understand will be released in full later in the year, the world lost 10 million ha of forests annually from 2015 to 2020 versus 12 million ha annually from 2010 to 2015.

Detailed country data are yet to come, and a global remote sensing report is planned for 2021, but there is already a trove of information in these key early findings.

Currently, there are 4.06 billion hectares of forest, representing 31 percent of the world’s total land area. The total net forest loss (sum of all forest losses and all forest gains) between 1990 and 2020 is now estimated at 178 million ha, showing a substantial 40 percent decrease from 7.8 million ha annually between 1990 and 2000 to 4.7 million ha annually between 2010 and 2020.

This does not look so bad in terms of achieving Aichi Biodiversity Target 5.

However, digging a little deeper into the data offers the opportunity to get a complete picture of what is actually happening.”

Q: Could you sum up what you think the key message is that we should take from this?

A: “The world has lost 420 million ha of mostly intact forests since 1990, although the rate of deforestation is slowing in some regions, significantly in South America. The world was losing 16 million ha annually between 1990 and 2000 compared to 11 million annually between 2010 and 2020, about a 31 percent decrease in the annual deforestation rate.

The world gained about 242 million ha of forests during the 1990-2020 period, and triangulating the available data, it appears that 111 million ha was gained from regrowth and secondary forests and another 131 million ha of the increase is due to a growing number of planted forests representing 3 percent of the world’s forests.

But plantations, while supplying critical wood and fibre, are not intact forests, which generate vital planetary biodiversity and ecosystem services. Therefore, the “net forest loss” data in the FAO report raise some questions, appearing to mix apples (intact natural forests) with oranges (regrowth, secondary forests) and bananas (plantations).

The key message we should take from the data is that deforestation is continuing but must stop and that intact forests must be protected. To reach U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call to halt deforestation this year will require a much bigger effort. We also need to increase well-managed planted forests to ensure our future needs for a bioeconomy while protecting intact forests.”

Q: Could you give us your views on forests and biodiversity in relation to the report?

A: “The report states 726 million ha of forests are in protected areas (PA) and that 191 million hectares have been gazetted since 1990. Now, 18 percent of the world’s forests are located within protected areas, with South America home to the highest share of 31 percent, and Europe the lowest share of 6 percent.

I read that FAO Senior Forestry Officer Anssi Pekkarinen, who coordinated the assessment, said: ‘That means that the world has met and surpassed, for forests, the Aichi Target 11 to protect at least 17 percent of terrestrial area by 2020.’

Although meeting ABT 11 is a huge achievement in terms of scale, the preliminary FRA 2020 assessment report does not indicate what kind of land has been protected and whether it optimally mitigates biodiversity loss.

First, the assessment says that globally, 424 million ha of forest is designated primarily for biodiversity conservation with 111 million ha designated since 1990. This means that about 302 million ha of forests in protected areas do not have biodiversity conservation as their main objective.

Second, while ABT 11 galvanized expansion of the global protected area network, there is little evidence that this brings the expected biodiversity gains.

Area-based prioritization risks unintended perverse consequences and the focus of protected area target development should be both quantity and quality.”

Q: In 2018, an article published in Nature argued that a major shortcoming of ABT 11 is that although it takes the expansion of protected areas into consideration, it overlooks other criteria central to halting biodiversity decline.

“Over 85 percent of threatened vertebrates are  unrepresented in PAs, a depressing 4 percent more species than a decade earlier,” the authors of the article said, adding a list of target shortcomings they said highlighting the disconnect between PA quantity, quality and conservation outcomes or change in ecological condition, “posing a substantive challenge to ensuring current targets catalyse appropriate policy action.”

 Do you have any thoughts on this?

A: “Striving for PA coverage does not optimize biodiversity conservation, and some threatened biodiversity-rich ecosystems are largely underrepresented in the current 18 percent, including dry forests, mangroves, peatlands and tropical montane cloud forests.

The rate of protection is also different regionally and nationally: Asia has 13.9 percent PAs; but Bhutan has 40 percent while 14 other countries are well below 17 percent across the continent.

Additionally, too many ‘paper parks’ exist – legally designated PAs where landscape protection measures are insufficient to halt degradation. One third of global protected areas are heavily affected by intense human activities. However, overall biodiversity is higher and deforestation lower in protected areas with Indigenous-managed lands performing better than many state-managed protected lands.”

Q: The report points out that most forests have management plans plans exist for less than 25 percent of forests in Africa and less than 20 percent in South America. What do you think of this in light of deforestation threats in the Amazon and Congo Basins?

A: “Despite the global economic slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon continues with forest clearing over the past year at its highest level since monthly data began to be released publicly in 2007, according to official figures released last week by the country’s national space research institute INPE.

Overall, there are still too many governments in developed and developing countries that see forests merely as a stock of timber or a hindrance to development.

It takes minutes to cut a tree or burn a forest but decades to bring them back. This is no time for complacency.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Robert Nasi at
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